The Cable

France proposes high-level “political steering committee” to run Libya war

Following two days of intensive discussions in Brussels, NATO has agreed to support -- but not command -- operations in Libya. Meanwhile, France has proposed a high-level international "political steering committee" to actually run the war. But does the Obama administration support that idea?

"NATO has now decided to launch an operation to enforce the arms embargo against Libya," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement from Brussels on Tuesday evening. He said U.S. Admiral James Stavridis was activating NATO ships and aircraft to "monitor, report and, if needed, interdict vessels suspected of carrying illegal arms or mercenaries."

NATO has also "completed plans to help enforce the no-fly zone" that will be brought into force "if needed, in a clearly defined manner," to support the effort to protect the Libyan people," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen didn't say whether NATO would perform the command-and-control function of the no-fly zone, something that Turkey has objected to because the "all necessary measures" language of Security Council Resolution 1973 includes the bombing of Libya. France objected to NATO being in command of the war operations on a day-to-day basis and has now proposed a new "political steering committee," made up of foreign ministers from the United States, European, and Arab states, to oversee the war.

A French diplomat told The Cable that the details of the proposal would be worked out over the next few days. "It was always understood that there would be two stages of operations. The one that started on Saturday and a second phase in which NATO would play a role," the French diplomat said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé announced on Tuesday that the British are in agreement with the proposal but the French government has not said anything about the position of the Obama administration.

So is the Obama administration on board? White House spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to a request for comment on the French proposal. Obama spoke with Sarkozy Tuesday and "the two Presidents agreed on the means of using NATO's command structures to support the coalition," the French government said in a read out.

It's not clear how the French steering committee would be in operational control of the war, but the proposal includes that the committee would be in charge of the "strategic decisions" involving military action, the diplomat said.

If enacted, the proposal would allow President Barack Obama to fulfill his pledge to transfer leadership of the war out of American hands within "a matter of days," as he said Monday.

The French position is that the steering committee idea would allow NATO to bring its military capabilities to bear without putting an exclusively Western label on the military intervention. Qaddafi has called the campaign a "colonial crusade" by western nations.

"The only constraint is that we need to keep the Arabs involved," the French diplomat said. "In order to do that we need to use NATO capabilities and we need to [provide so that] Arab countries stay involved."

The NATO meetings on Monday were contentious. The French and German representatives reportedly stormed out of the meeting, albeit for very different reasons. France was upset at Rasmussen for openly criticizing France in the meeting and questioning their reliability as an ally. Germany is opposed to the military intervention altogether.

"We do not want to be sucked into a position of eventually seeing German soldiers fighting in Libya," Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said.

"There was confusion yesterday but we are safely now going in the right direction," the French diplomat reported.

Our sources also report that Washington has made it clear that they want to see the transfer of leadership for the Libya mission leave U.S. hands by the end of the week. Whether the Obama administration and the Defense Department are comfortable with a French led international steering committee making decisions about the actions of U.S. military forces remains to be seen.

The Cable

State Department: We are not giving internet censorship funding to the BBC… yet

Foggy Bottom is flat out denying a British news report on Sunday that said State Department money would be awarded to the BBC to combat Internet censorship around the world.

"The BBC World Service is to receive a "significant" sum of money from the US government to help combat the blocking of TV and internet services in countries including Iran and China," the Guardian reported.

In fact, State has not yet made any decisions on how to spend the $30 million of congressionally appropriated money for fighting internet censorship that is sitting in its coffers. The BBC World Trust Service is just one of the 61 organizations applying for the funds, but has not gotten any approval or grants.

Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner called the Guardian article "inaccurate and misleading."

"The BBC World Service Trust has indicated its intention to submit a proposal to the State Department in the area of Internet freedom, as part of an open and competitive solicitation, but we have not yet received this proposal or made any funding decisions," Posner said in a statement.

He also said State has no intention of announcing the awarding of the funds on May 3, Press Freedom Day, as the Guardian article alleged. Our sources said that proposals are due on March 31; the following week, evaluation panels will meet to go over the proposals and make decisions. 

On Capitol Hill, there's a bipartisan push to make sure most of those funds go to the U.S. government funded Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to immediately transfer no less than $8 million of the funds to the BBG.

Lugar is concerned that America is falling behind in the public diplomacy competition to countries that are expanding their external media operations, such as China.

"In the same way that our trade with China is out of balance, it is clear to even the casual observer that when it comes to interacting directly with the other nation's public we are in another lop-sided contest," Lugar wrote in a recent report (PDF).

In Senate testimony earlier this month, Clinton agreed.

"We are in an information war, and we are losing that war," she said. "I'll be very blunt in my assessment. Al Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened a global English language and multi-language television network. The Russians have opened up an English-language network."

The House's version of the temporary funding bill for the rest of fiscal 2011 calls for $10 million to be transferred from State to BBG toward this effort; the Senate version of the bill calls for $15 million. Aides on the Hill told The Cable that if a significant portion of the funds don't end up in BBG hands, Lugar and other lawmakers will get deeply involved in pressuring State to rethink its decision.

"Given the recent language included in both House and Senate continuing resolutions, the State Department's inability to see the Congressional handwriting on the wall on this issue is nothing short of breathtaking," a GOP Senate aide said.